This final instalment of the blogging toolbox series covers tips and tools for growing your blog, including search engine optimization (SEO) strategies. The other posts in the series are:
- Blogging Toolbox I: WordPress
- Blogging Toolbox II: Images & Design
- Blogging Toolbox III: Content & Writing
Table of Contents
Growing Your Blog
Time and effort is the best way to achieve genuine growth. Unless you’re one of the lucky few that manages to amass followers super-quickly, getting your first 100 followers may well feel like watching paint dry. Growth strategies will differ depending on where you’re trying to get that growth from. You might be interested in reading about social proof, a psychological phenomenon that makes people more interested in things that they can see other people are interested in/have liked.
The best way to boost your traffic from WordPress is to actively interact with other bloggers. Read other people’s blog posts, leave meaningful comments, and get genuine conversations going.
Your posting frequency also makes a difference. Regardless of a blog’s quality, posting more frequently will generate more traffic. If you have 100 followers who all read every post (which never actually happens), posting 5 days a week gets you 500 views that week, while posting 1 day a week will only get you 100 views. Your blog hasn’t gotten worse and your followers aren’t less loyal; it’s just simple math.
The WordPress Reader recommendation algorithm recommends posts based on:
- post title, content, tags, and categories
- total number of likes and comments, and who liked/commented
- total number of followers, and who those followers are
- how recently a post was published
- How frequently/recently a site publishes new content
- the content of what you’ve liked/commented on
- whether posts have links, images, or videos
Some people will play the follow/follow-back or like-for-like game, but you certainly don’t need to. The larger a blog gets, the more spammy followers you’ll accumulate. These people won’t actually read your blog. That, combined with the fact that a lot of your older followers will have stopped blogging, means that your reader numbers will be significantly lower than your follower numbers (unless you actively delete followers who aren’t reading).
Social media is one way to grow your blog, but it’s not the only way, and there’s not some rule of blogging that you need to be on particular platforms or even social media at all. I say you’re better off focusing on what interests you or feels relatively easy rather than trying to do everything at once (for me, that means focusing on SEO rather than social media).
Social media traffic will be very dependent on how much effort you put into the platforms you’re using. WP allows you to auto-share posts to Twitter and Facebook, but if you’re not very active on the platforms, you’re unlikely to get much traffic. Twitter comment threads are a popular way to promote blog posts. Pinterest can also be very effective, and it’s my preferred platform.
You can read more about this in the post Do You Use Social Media to Promote Your Blog?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Search engine optimization (SEO) is about making your site more appealing to search engines so you’ll show up higher in search results and draw more visitors to your blog. Because search engines want to give searchers results that are useful to them, a lot of the factors they consider are things that make your site more user-friendly.
Some things require an SEO plugin, which we’ll get to shortly, but there’s still a lot you can do to up your SEO game even on the WP free plan.
Search engine traffic takes a while to attract. If this matters to you, it helps to be consistent with your SEO over the longer term. Google isn’t going to instantly fall in love with your blog; it takes time and consistent posting.
Post titles should reflect what your post is about. The first title that springs to mind for a post may be creative and quirky, which may be appealing for your regular readers, but it’s not necessarily going to do much to help new readers from search engines make their way to your site. It should be clear from your title what your post’s topic is, and it can help to incorporate words that people would be likely to enter as a search query if they were looking for a post like yours.
Headings create structure for your posts, and this helps search engines to understand the subject matter that the post covers. Your post’s title uses an H1 heading. Major headings within your post should be H2, and then subheadings can be H3, or H4 if another level of heading is needed.
Besides helping search engines understand a post, they also make it easier for your readers to follow along. Try to have heading or subheading sections no longer than 300 words (which works out to about 3-4 paragraphs), and make your headings reflective of the topic.
Using descriptive file names and alt text helps search engines recognize that your images are relevant to your post. Your images may even show up in Google Image search results if Google is able to understand what they’re about.
Page loading speed is a key metric that Google uses to evaluate pages, and big image files can really slow this down. The post Making the Most of Your WordPress Media Storage Space has tips on how to minimize the size of your images, thus speeding up page loading.
Once you publish a post, its URL has 3 components by default: your domain name, the date published, and the slug, which is specific to that post. WordPress automatically sets the slug to match your post title, but you can change this in your post settings.
Search engines like it when a slug is concise and reflects what the post is about. If you’re using an SEO plugin, such as Yoast, it will give you feedback on the length, but in general, you want it to be short and sweet (about 5 words or less).
If the title of the post was quite wordy, e.g. The Top Ten Search Engine Optimization Strategies You Should Be Using With Your Blog Right Now, the automatically generated slug would be really long, and I might cut it down to top-ten-seo-strategies.
Creating links, both within your site and to other relevant sites, is a major component of SEO. Links show search engines that your site is connected to the world rather than stranded off on an island somewhere.
There are three broad types of links:
- Internal: links between posts/pages on your site
- External: links on one of your posts/pages that point to a different website
- Backlinks: links on other websites that point to your site
These show that your site is well-integrated, including new and old content. Just as importantly, they help readers to find additional related content that they might be interested in. Even if few or no people click on your internal links, that’s okay; it’s having the structure that really matters.
You might use external links to identify another blogging you’ve mentioned or sites that you’ve used to get information for a post. If you’re linking to credible, high-profile sites, that helps your post to appear more authoritative.
There are two types of external links: dofollow and nofollow. Dofollow links tell search engines that you’re giving some of your credibility to the site you’re linking to (this is sometimes referred to as link juice), whereas nofollow links tell search engines not to take the link as an endorsement. If you’re linking to a dodgy site for some reason, you might want to make it nofollow.
When you create/edit a link in the block editor, there are three toggle buttons; the second is “Search engines should ignore this link (mark as nofollow)”, and you can toggle that on if you want to make a link nofollow. WordPress automatically marks links in your comments as nofollow.
Sites that you’re linking to may disappear or their URLs may change over time, leaving you with broken links. There are a number of tools available to check for broken links so you can fix them, including:
- Integrity app for Mac OS
- Internet Marketing Ninjas’ Image & Link Analyzer
- Screaming Frog SEO Spider
- Check My Links Google Chrome extension: lets you check one page at a time
Backlinks and Domain Authority
And that brings us to backlinks, the links that other people create on their site to connect to your site. These are outside of your direct control, and Google takes them as a sign that other people take your site seriously.
Dofollow links are good if you can get them, but there is still some value in nofollow links, especially from authoritative sites.
One way to see how your site is doing in terms of backlinks is by checking your DA (domain authority), a metric developed by Moz. It’s heavily impacted by how many people are linking to your blog and what their DA is.
DA scores range from 1-100. They use a logarithmic scale, so the difference between 80 and 90 is way bigger than the difference between 0 and 10. DA matters most if you’re trying to get sponsored posts and that kind of thing. Your site’s DA isn’t a secret between you and Moz; anyone can look it up. If your blog has a yourblog.wordpress.com URL, your site won’t have its own DA; it just gets lumped in with the overall DA of the WordPress.com domain.
Potential backlink sources
You can create some of your own backlinks on platforms aside from your blog, although many of these will be nofollow rather than dofollow.
- Write in other places, like a guest post for another blogger or writing on Medium, Elephant Journal, Hubpages, or Vocal.
- List your blog on the OnTopList directory.
- Set up accounts buymeacoffee.com and/or Ko-fi with a few posts linking back to your site. Even if you’re not looking for coffee donations, it’s a good way to get links pointing to particular posts/pages you’ want people to see on your site, although the links are nofollow. Google Images also seems to like images on coffee site posts.
- Contently lets you create a portfolio of your work, like some of your best blog posts.
- Goodreads can be a source of nofollow backlink action if you post book reviews both there and on your blog. When I post reviews on GR, I write at the bottom “this post originally appeared on [link to post].”
- List.ly is a list creation site. You can include links (they’re nofollow) to your own content as well as things located elsewhere on the internet.
- Advertising packages on blogs seems to have become a thing recently, where other bloggers will pay to be featured as an advertiser on that blog for a month. The standard shebang seems to be showing the advertisers’ blog logos in the sidebar, doing a blog post featuring the advertisers and linking to several of their posts, and doing some social media shares.
- If you comment on one of WordPress’s own blog posts (at https://wordpress.com/blog/) you’ll get a high DA nofollow backlink that Moz will detect.
When people talk about keywords in the context of SEO, they refer to search terms for which you want your post to show up in search results. As a personal blogger, you’re probably not going to be deciding what to write about based on keywords, but it’s something you can keep in the back of your mind to incorporate into your post’s title or headings.
“Long-tail keywords” refers to longer, natural language queries that searchers may use. I would probably have quite a hard time ranking well for a blog post titled Aromatherapy and Mental Health. On the other hand, let’s say my post is titled Does Ylang Ylang Help with Depression? Or maybe my aromatherapy post has that question as one of its H2 headings. Not as many people are going to be searching for that specific phrase, but I will rank much better for that specific query than a more general aromatherapy and mental health query.
SEO plugins will give you feedback on things to change in your posts to make them more search-friendly. They also allow you to do various other things, including entering a meta description, which helps search engines understand what your post is about. The two most popular options are Yoast and RankMath.
Schema.org markup is a way to add structured data to your post (you can find out more about structured data from Google). If you’re writing a book review, for example, you can use Schema markup to let search engines know the book’s title, author, and ISBN, your rating of the book, and other details. Yoast and RankMath both allow you to use some types of Schema markup, but the Schema & Structured Data for WP & AMP plugin gives you a lot more options.
I’ve got structured data set up for the book reviews I do, and when my reviews show up in Google search, the search result shows extra details like the star rating I gave the book.
Webmaster tools allow you to see how often your posts are appearing in searches, what search terms are sending people your way, and various other bits of information about how search engines see your sites. To set these up, you’ll need to:
- sign up with Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Center, and Yandex Webmaster
- verify that you own your site, which you can do from your WordPress editing dashboard
- click marketing (in the tools section) and then the traffic tab
- scroll down to site verification services, which includes a link to a WP article explaining how to do the setup
If your site loads slowly, that’s off-putting for readers, so it’s one of the factors that Google considers when ranking search results. They use a set of metrics called Core Web Vitals. You can see how your pages are doing in Google Search Console, plus you can use Google’s PageSpeed Insights to test individual pages. GTmetrix is another tool you can use to test individual pages.
There are a variety of other site optimization plugins that can help speed up your site, such as WP-Optimize, although you don’t want to have multiple plugins fighting to do the same things.
Large image sizes can slow down page loading, so you can improve this by resizing your images and using an image compression plugin like Smush.
Preloading an image involves telling a browser when it first starts loading a page to go fetch that image file right away before waiting for other page loading tasks to happen first. You can do this by using a plugin like Preload Images, or you can do it manually by adding HTML code to particular posts/pages using a plugin like HFCM. Google has an article on preloading responsive images that talks about the HTML code you use for this.
Other SEO tools
These are some more tools you may find useful:
- Ahrefs: shows which sites link to yours; also has an extensive site audit tool; you can find the sign-up for a free account on their webmaster tools page
- Moz’s link explorer: shows backlinks to your site
- SEMRush: gives info about backlinks and other SEO areas, and does a 50-page site audit
- SEObility: a free site audit tool to check your technical SEO
Learn more about SEO
These sites are good resources to learn more about SEO: